On misusing the Bible to deny the divinity of Christ

Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the God of Israel (which I briefly mentioned here) is an excellent study on how the Gospels establish the deity of Jesus through the acts he did that were seen by his followers to be exclusive to the God of Israel. The New Testament recognises Jesus as divine through his identity with Yahweh.

Bauckham shows how the Hebrew scriptures (and inter-testamental literature) clearly distinguish exalted spiritual beings or inspired humans from Yahweh, even when he manifests in unusual ways, or is represented by “hypostases” such as his “word” or his “wisdom.” The Jews recognised how certain activities were absolutely exclusive to God – such as the control of nature, or the forgiveness of sins. And the disciples saw that Jesus fulfilled these criteria in, say, the calming of the storm or the forgiveness of the man let down through the roof, whom Jesus also healed. Bauckham’s book is highly recommended.

What is clear is that the Gospels do affirm Jesus’s divinity, despite those who deny the fact (usually by relegating the relevant biblical claims to later interpolation). As Gary Habermas, and others, have shown, the belief in Jesus as God preceded even an early date for the composition of the Gospels, certainly being taught by the apostles when the converted Paul went to Jerusalem just a handful of years after the Resurrection. As Habermas abbreviates it, the core faith of early Christianity was “DDR” – deity, death, resurrection.

Yet from the earliest times heresies arose denying the divinity of Christ, and what is more they often tried to prove their case from the New Testament. Arianism (Jesus was an exalted but created being) is largely restricted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses now, and adoptionism (God took over an ordinary man) struggled on in eastern sects until it was taken up by Islam, and hence persists in an incoherent form today.

But perhaps the most recent shape it has taken is the “kenotic theology” I’ve railed against for a number of years. This misinterprets Philippians 2 to say that Jesus’s “emptying himself” means that he set aside his divinity altogether and became “merely” a man in the Incarnation. In my 1988 IVP New Dictionary of Theology “kenoticism” warrants only a brief article treating it as a minor aberration from the nineteenth century. But since then it has become popular again, because it serves the interests of several rather disparate groups.

To the Open Theists, it in the first place fits their over-literal exegetical method: if Paul says he emptied himself, then it can’t mean that he simply humbled himself, even though Paul uses the phrase that way elsewhere. But the move also enables their core theology, that God himself is limited in his knowledge and power, especially by human choice, to find expression in the Incarnation. Jesus became a man just like us, and so he too is fallible, and his teaching can therefore be relativised if it runs counter to the way human freedom has developed since. He could certainly, for instance, have been wrong on matters of sexuality and gender, because even the Father (they say) can change his opinions in the light of new experience.

A second group of kenoticists, some of whom are Open Theists, is found amongst theistic evolutionists, who can similarly use an effectively only-human Jesus to downplay his teaching on a Genesis they believe to be fictional, but who also take the principle of “self-emptying” to be paradigmatic of God’s nature, and hence allow creation to consist of letting nature evolve by itself. Kenosis baptizes Darwinian Epicureanism with a Christian gloss.

A third strand, in a rather different vein, is that taught by the heterodox Bill Johnson of Bethel (Redding) Church. He employs kenotic theology to say that Jesus’s entire ministry depended on the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and not his own laid-aside divinity. The motive is simple: Bethel claims that its apostles (and you, dear reader, if you have sufficient faith in Bethel’s training) are able to do all that Jesus did, and even greater miracles, because they are no less human than Christ, and have access to the same Spirit. Beware, for that seductive teaching has even crept down to local church level, leading to the bane of that hamster-wheel of failed expectations for healing, and the conclusion that either the sick person, or the hopeful healer, has insufficient Holy Spirit, faith or righteousness. The truth is that, unlike Jesus, they are not God.

If you think about it a little, all these kenotic views slam up against the New Testament teaching that Jesus’s disciples recognised him as God. If, in effect, Jesus was merely a man empowered by the Holy Spirit, then he was indistinguishable in principle from a miracle-working prophet like, say, Elisha, except by degree. Since it would have been blasphemy to regard Elisha as God simply because of his miraculous works, then the disciples would have been blasphemous to mistake the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit for the works of the man Jesus himself. Likewise, for Jesus to forgive sins (“Who but God can forgive sins?”) and prove it on the basis of a healing actually achieved not by his own divine power, but by the indwelling of the same Spirit that empowerd Elisha, would be sheer misrepresentation. The scribes and Pharisees were justified in their accusations of blasphemy if Jesus claimed things which were not, as he actually addressed them in the flesh, true of himself, but only of the Spirit in him.

In short, the early Church would have had no grounds for saying that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God, if all his works were achieved only by the same Spirit available to believers today, who are clearly not the incarnate Son of God.

Yet the case for all the heresies denying Christ’s deity rests on texts of Scripture, and it will be quite productive to look at them more closely than we often do, and suggest how they actually support the case for orthodoxy, rather than undermining it.

One such text is dealt with by Bauckham himself. In John 5:19 Jesus says “The Son can do nothing by himself,” and he repeats the thought in verse 30. Does this not show Jesus’s inferiority to God, and imply that without the God’s support he is powerless? Well no, because John has already said that his opponents perceived Jesus’s words as claiming equality with God, because he claimed to be working just as God, his Father, was working. Verse 19 goes on to reinforce the “blasphemy” by saying that the work the Father does is the same work Jesus does. The logical conclusion is that Jesus does nothing on his own because the Father, too, does nothing on his own. They are as inseparable in everything as… the Trinity. That is confirmed in chapter 10, where Jesus’s “I and the Father are One” leads to more accusations of blasphemy, which would be entirely justified if Jesus were an exalted angel, an adopted man, or emptied of his divinity for the duration of his earthly stay.

A second set of “problem passages” is those that express the role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’s ministry. At his baptism, the Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove. Does this not imply (Bill Johnson fashion) a mere man being endowed with power only by the anointing of God?

Even more superficially damning are Peter’s words to Cornelius in Acts10:

“God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and … he went about doing good and healing…”

And does not even the Resurrection depend on the Holy Spirit’s anointing? For Romans 8:11 says:

The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you.

Yet here all is not as it may superficially seem. For Jesus himself, again in John 10, says:

“I have authority to lay [my life] down and authority to take it up again.”

And Galatians 1:1 says that it was the Father who raised Jesus from the dead. Can’t the Bible make up its mind on anything? Was it Jesus the Son who did his divine works, or the Spirit anointing him who did them, or the Father? “Yes” is, in fact, the answer to the problem, the clue being our first discussion around “By myself I can do nothing.”

In the Old Testament, the vast majority of references to the Holy Spirit are to anointings given to prophets, priests and kings – as in Christian experience, the Spirit is about power for service. But there is one highly significant exception, and that is in Genesis 1:2, where “The Spirit (or ‘breath) of God was hovering over the waters.” There is a clear implication that it was this same Spirit of God that was involved in the creative acts that follow.

Yet with the benefit of John 1, we also learn that Jesus the divine Word was involved at every stage of creation – it would appear that he is equated with the words of power by which God spoke creation into being. Combining these human analogies, we can see that creation was, in fact, a Trinitarian work. The Father was its source, the Logos was the “information,” and the Spirit the breath or power, that carried those words into effect.

Analogically speaking, if I voice an idea, “I” am its source, my vocal cords its physical formulation (yet still part of me), and my breath the power (proceeding from me, as the Spirit proceeds from the Father) that carries it out into the world. This analogy shows that these three are inseparable: of course my voice can do nothing apart from me, and of course it speaks only by the power of my breath. Jesus required the Spirit for his divine works not because he was merely a man (through kenosis or otherwise), but because the Father himself works necessarily through his Spirit.

And so Jesus required the Holy Spirit not because he was not divine, but because he was. Everything Jesus said and did was a Trinitarian act of the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. They are inseparable in everything, because (as his Jewish disciples maintained despite their new faith) “God is One.”

One thing is somewhat less clear to me, though I can offer suggestions. And that is the Gospel teaching that Jesus was anointed with the Spirit at his baptism, at the age of thirty. Yet in the same Gospels, John the Baptist is said to have been full of the Spirit even from his mother’s womb. Was Jesus inferior to John, without the Spirit until then, pushing us again towards adoptionism or kenoticism?

Clearly not, from what has been said hitherto. Jesus had already shown supernatural knowledge when in the temple at age twelve, and since God and man were already united in him, by the very nature of the Incarnation his actions were Trinitarian even then. Here are some suggestions to explain the anointing with the Spirit found in all four gospels.

  • At a minimum, it was the sign promised to John indicating who the Messiah was (John 1:33).
  • It marked the beginning of his public ministry: this would not be the only instance of rather fluid reference to the Holy Spirit’s presence. For example, compare Jesus’s breathing of the Spirit on his disciples well before the pivotal event at Pentecost that launched the Church proper.
  • It was a visible sign to John, and through his testimony to all, of the invisible Spirit working with Jesus.
  • Like Jesus’s baptism, it was a mark of solidarity with his Church. Not only was Jesus the divine gift, but he was also the human founder of the Kingdom of God on earth. He normalised water baptism and Spirit baptism as the commencement of Christian life, and indeed became their source, as John confirms in saying that the one on whom the Spirit depends becomes the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. He is seen by this joint act to be our brother as well as our God.

Incidentally, I can sense here some explanation of the schism from the Eastern Church produced by the filioque clause of the Western creeds, and maybe the possibility of rapprochement. As the Orthodox say, the Spirit proceeds ontologically from the Father, just as human breath proceeds from the lungs to empower the voice, as I described above. Yet in anointing Jesus as the baptizer with the Holy Spirit, isn’t it true to say that the Spirit also proceeds both through and from the Son to the Church, by the Father’s declaration?

  • Lastly, could it be that the bodily form of the Spirit as a dove hovering above the Jordan harks back to that Genesis 1 description of the Spirit hovering above the waters? Perhaps we are intended to see, in the descent of the Spirit and the Father’s pronouncement of Jesus’s beloved Sonship, the fullness of the Godhead united at the start of the New Creation as it was at the Old?

“The Trinity is not mentioned in the Bible.” Oh yeah? The word, indeed not. But the thing itself, once one clears away kenotic baggage, is everywhere you look.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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